Beginner's Heart

BrainInHeartThe Virginia gubernatorial candidate from the Republican party says my niece has no soul. My lovely niece, who is intellectually brilliant, wise and funny, and as kind and good as dawn. Because her partner is another woman — another lovely, talented, witty, and amazing woman — he says neither one has a soul. I won’t give his name space in this blog. I’m that angry.

This same man is trying to have certain sexual acts banned — even between married couples, in the privacy of their home. This same man argued that the Roman goddess Virtus, on the state seal, should have her bare breast covered. Really, dude? This is an issue of critical significance to the state? virginia state seal 2

So I suppose I shouldn’t be as angry as I am. The guy is obviously a few watts shy of a night light.  But in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t deal well with threats, slurs, or insults to those I love. And when you couple family with the many dear friends of mine who have equally dear same-sex partners, I’m livid.

Who does this guy think he is? Who abdicated and made him God? My understanding — and I’m reasonably well-versed in multiple wisdom traditions — is that only the Creator has jurisdiction over soul-production. And don’t souls only exit at death? NO ONE, to my knowledge, is born without a soul. And even Hitler — surely the meanest of the mean (well, maybe Stalin gets in there, and Attila the Hun) — had a soul. Whether or not he forfeited it after death…no one this side of the dirt knows.

I always wonder, when people make hateful, hurtful comments like his, if they think of their own nieces. If they think of their cousins, maybe even children they’ve known since babyhood. It’s okay, I guess — in their worlds — to say these terribly WRONG things about other people’s family members. Because there is NO family in America today who does not know well someone who is gay. And every one of these bigoted weapons of comments strikes a child: a tween struggling with why she doesn’t find the guys in her school worth giggling over. A 14-year-old boy, wondering what he has to live for in a community where he sees only hatred for who he is. A college student who suddenly wakes up to realise that his/her disinterest in the opposite sex has significance.

Wekindness‘re contemplating moving to Virginia, as my elder son, DIL, and perfect grandson will soon be living in Blacksburg. Under, possibly, the jurisdiction of this mean-spirited troll. (I can think of far more precise terms — none suitable for print.) How on earth did this country of freedom, of men & women who fled persecution from governments, become a place where a man like this can represent an entire political party in a state like Virginia? I don’t get it.

I’m trying to remember that unkind people — people who can say evil, hurtful, scarring things to my family, to yours, to their own — also need compassion. That such people have to live w/ their own bigotry, always the product of fear. I try hard to remember that.

But it’s very difficult. And sometimes? I just don’t get it.


imageWhen I recently posted a blog concerning white privilege on my FB, a long-time friend & colleague asked, “At what point do we quit beating our chests?” Here’s my answer, and a warning: it’s long. But I did cite resources! 🙂

I first read Brent Staples a few years after his seminal essay “Black Men and Public Spaces” first came out. Possibly in the late 80s, maybe as late as 1990. It was one of those pieces that you remember as a point in your life: there was before, and then there was after. Nothing was the same after I read it.

The essay is familiar to many American college students — the basic premise is that class complicates white America’s fear of black men. Had Trayvon Martin been wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, and whistling Vivaldi, perhaps George Zimmerman wouldn’t have murdered him. Or at least that was Staples’ strategy against the ominous click click click of car window latches that President Obama spoke of. But Staples wrote his essay in 1986. I doubt it would be that simple now.

Race is a difficult topic for white America. At least most of us. The idea of white privilege even more so. There’s an enormous resistance to believing in/ recognising white privilege. Especially among the blue-collar class, who have experienced prejudice as well, in the form of classism. A man (or woman) who has had to work for everything he has doesn’t want to believe it could have/ would have been even worse had he been black or brown.As a first-generation academic, I agree that certainly it is hard enough for many whites. But the white man we’re makingimage an example of made it, he thinks, and so can anyone else who tries. Such a man is rarely interested in seeing his race as a positive factor in his success. Especially if he wasn’t successful. Being white has had no impact, he says. And he may be even more vocal if he is now a ‘self-made’ man. Witness the raging response of “I built this by myself!!”

White privilege is the assumption that you have right to walk the streets at night as who you are, even in a hoodie. That you can walk into a highway McDonald’s with 10 friends and no one will tremble in fear. (My friend Ben, who works at a historically black college, says that all buses with black athletes travelling must have 1+ whites on board to allay the fears of highway restaurants, or the bus doesn’t bother to stop. Too risky, Ben says.)

White privilege means your son will never be Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times by New York police, “just for living in [his] American skin,” as Bruce Springsteen sang. Both young men unarmed. Both yet another prompt for black American parents to have the ‘always keep your hands in sight’ talk. A discussion I have never faced with my two white sons.

Being white means my two sons will never be asked for their papers when stopped by a cop for a light out, although my older son’s brother-in-law will. And possibly, if he grows up in Oklahoma, my beloved grandson will… Although I hope that this madness gripping America fades into a gentler picture by then.

imageWhite privilege is so pervasive that like your left knee, you don’t notice it. IF you’re white. Yet, as my cousin Jean wrote in an eloquent FB post, “black men, in this country cannot escape the narrative that we as a culture have painted them in to. The narrative is that they are automatically a threat. If an unarmed, black, teenager is walking down the street, then they must be a threat. They cannot belong there; we as a culture cannot allow it. And this is the message this verdict is sending. It says that black people are not safe in America. Even worse, it is saying that they do not belong. And as a person with white privilege, this verdict, while tragic, will never affect me personallyI am not the one being told that I can be killed at any time with impunity. So, if you feel tired of having to deal with the Trayvon Martin story, please remember that not all of us can afford the luxury of ignoring it.”image

In 1986, what Brent Staples said rang true to me. Today? I suspect it might have saved Trayvon Martin’s life still — you’re far less likely to murder a black guy in a suit than in a hoodie, even if you’re George Zimmerman. But does anyone really believe that a black man who gunned down a white teenager would have gone free? I don’t. And I have no doubt that a black man who gunned down a white guy in a suit would probably get the death sentence.

Given the nightmares a Harvard-educated, suit-wearing, polished & urbane black president ignites in the breasts of far too many Americans, I doubt that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin would have lived even in a suit. It would be wonderful to think so. I’d also like to believe that my early family weren’t on the wrong side of Archer Street in the Tulsa Race Riot.

Issues of race are worsening in America, even though — perhaps because? — we have a black president. As Peggy McIntosh said about the same time Staples published his essay, we need to unpack this nation’s knapsack of white privilege. And begin to heal America. Or put it this way: every yellow body bag with a 17-year-old boy’s dead body in it is the direct result of someone’s unpacked knapsack. And no whistling in the dark will bring him back ~


INFJA friend’s blog featured a quick&dirty Jung personality test (the four traits test, some folks call it). I move back & forth on it, but usually I’m about where this one put me: INFJ. A moderate Introvert (which is far more than most of my friends & colleagues would believe); strongly iNtuitive; moderately more Feeling than Perceiving, and very slightly more Judging than Perceiving.

So what, right? Well, it means (according to the short blurb, at least) that I’m in good social justice company. Nelson Mandela and MLK Jr., no less. Not to mention Mother Teresa & Jimmy Carter. That makes me happy.

Some of the other things, maybe not as much. I hate to think of myself as judgmental, but I know I am. While mercy is the ground for most of my beliefs — that & grace — I think there are things that are flat wrong. Harming children? Always wrong. Mean to animals? The same. And things that fall within those categories might not appear to be harmful or mean to others.

A note: if you don’t believe we have a moral right to help those less fortunate, that falls in to things I think are flat wrong. It’s totally WRONG to give money away to rich corporations and do away with food for children and families. W-R-O-N-G.see and hear no evil

It’s also wrong to tell people they’re evil, à la Westboro Church. The Christian Bible doesn’t talk much — at least not in the Jesus part — about evil. Nor does Buddhism. And certainly not Unitarian Universalism, which believes no one is eternally damned. I’m not sure a lot of Unitarians even believe in eternity… 🙂

I also love that the snapshot talks about writing, and other things I value. So the point? That these kinds of minute windows into who we may, possibly, be…comfort us. At least they do me, and many of my friends. Because the deal is: if MLK Jr. had anything in common with me, I’m okay. Really OK! Like Jimmy Carter, my thoughts are all over the place. 🙂 So it’s very comforting to know that somehow, I’m in the right neighbourhood for goodness. And that’s good news, in a time when the world is often all too short on happy moments.


imageI ‘got inked’ with my younger son when I was in Portland last month. He asked, and I was charmed. I already have one tattoo — a small Chinese character for ‘ink,’ almost unnoticeable on my inside right ankle.

This one is NOT unnoticeable. Friends vary in their reactions. Some were horrified (truly — you can tell). Others (particularly old friends & family) were accepting; they’ve known me to do far weirder things. I’m lucky to have the best of husbands — he said my dragon was beautiful. I think so too.

I’m year of the dragon, which by most Asian standards is a great thing to be. And the dragon seems to me the perfect symbol for the changes I’ve been going through.

The tattoo had been in the back of my head for a long time. In Chinese, Việtnamese, and Thai mythologies, the dragon is ancient & wise. The old I can vouch for feeling these days; the wise I hope to grow into. Dragons in Western mythologies are there primarily, it always seemed to me, to serve as proving grounds for homicidal knights. And/or to devour nubile maidens. But I’ve (obviously) never seen them that way.image

As a child, I went w/ my family every Tết to the annual dragon dance, known sometimes as the lion dance. My mother told me I too was a dragon (I think I’ve known this since was no older than 9). So I never rooted for the ‘heroes’ who slayed the poor dragon. I always rooted for the dragon.

Later, the dragon became a kind of talisman for me. Fearless, winged, wise and just. It’s what I’d like to be. Still. 🙂

Once, years ago, a man on the bus saw my small ‘ink’ tattoo and said I didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would get a tattoo. Hmmmm. Just what kind of woman DOES get a tattoo, Tom? And what kind of woman do you think I am? The conversation went downhill pretty quickly ~

Because poets are EXACTLY the kind of people to make metaphors concrete, tangible. I wanted ‘ink’ in my blood, hence my first tattoo so many years ago, while I was working hard to perfect my craft. Now? I want to go forward into these next years with wings. I want to fight for what’s right, and be able to tell the difference between attachment and justice. So my dragon is a doorway into that next place, a threshold space, if you will. A liminal space where beginner’s heart can continue growing.

imageIt’s also art. Body art, yes, but I think it’s beautiful. I like the colours (each of which I discussed ad infinitum nauseaum w/ Sean, at Infinity Tattoo in Portland. And art — whether with a big A or a small a — is good, as Sean says. Always. 🙂

I don’t think everyone gets a tattoo for the same reasons I have. But then, how many retired college professors have sons who want to go get tattooed together? And a fixation on dragons…? 🙂


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